Bringing happiness through puppets
It’s not easy to get a puppet to talk.
Adam Swartz has any number of voices at his disposal to counter my one, which can maybe be pitched up a couple of octaves and usually not without the proper stimulus, like oncoming puberty or the faintest whisper of the words “flu shot.”
Anyway, I figure that between the two of us, we stand a pretty good chance of exploiting the old good cop/bad cop routine to maximum effect — lean on the perp and get him to spill his guts, “Law and Order” style.
The “perp,” by the way, is a set of Ping-Pong balls that have been wrapped around my fingers with an elastic band. These are my training wheels, a precautionary measure to ensure that no one gets hurt while I learn how to balance on an actual puppet.
It might be puppets but it’s still acting. It’s all about the character.
Fortunately, Swartz is a better teacher than he is bad cop. Friendly looking with the personality to back it up, he’s wearing long hair, shorts and a brightly patterned shirt.
This is the face you want looking back at you when teetering on the verge of feeling slightly foolish — which after 60 seconds or so of conversing with your own hand is not a tall order.
Swartz does this kind of thing all the time, typically in libraries or in schools under the umbrella of his company, Adam Swartz Puppets. The experience can help loosen the shy kids up a bit.
“They’re focusing on performing with another object and not them,” Swartz said.
We’re standing in his garage-turned-workshop in Pennsylvania Furnace, where there are just enough buckets of Ping-Ppong eyeballs to suggest that many a puppet was either born here or died horribly at the top of a very special Jim Henson production of “Sweeney Todd.”
It is, in it’s own way, a two-door version of Neverland, refuge for a boy who had no intention of ever growing up.
Pulling a reverse “Big” is not for wimps, though. There are some heady questions to consider.
“What am I going to do to disguise myself as an adult as I got older?” Swartz recalls asking himself.
To a young boy, a puppet must have seemed like a cuddlier refresh on the Trojan horse. Swartz successfully passed into adulthood without anyone noticing that he was old and therefore was probably supposed to be filling out a spreadsheet somewhere.
The space in between was filled with pilgrimages to Sesame Workshop and conversations with mentors who told him that if he wanted to be a puppeteer, he should, in fact, start being a puppeteer.
“I remember talking to someone from ‘Fraggle Rock’ on the phone and that was their advice to me,” Swartz said.
Now he’s in the position to dispense his own nuggets of wisdom — which is good because my hand has absolutely no natural charisma whatsoever.
Back in the garage, Swartz had very kindly pointed out one of the rookie mistakes I’d made in moving my thumb and the roof that the rest of my fingers had formed at the same time.
If I’d been wearing an actual puppet, the effect would have been more evocative of Cookie Monster going to town on a bag of Chips Ahoy! than the polite brand of discourse more commonly associated with, say, Kermit the Frog.
The distinction between the two is important.
“It might be puppets but it’s still acting. It’s all about the character,” Swartz said.
Ask and he’ll tell you that all of his puppets have a baseline personality, which in turn defines a certain amount of range. We’ll buy Kermit as Bob Cratchit — but Fozzie Bear, not so much.
Swartz describes one his first puppets, a thin fella with a shock of bright blue hair named Billy, as friendly, childlike and curious.
“I talk to myself in a bunch of different voices and characters for like 30 minutes,” Swartz said.
Taking notes behind the keyboard is Kathy, his partner and wife of 10 years.
The couple can trace one long puppet string all the way back to State College Area High School, where they bonded over a love for all things theatrical.
As a team, they’ve long since taken the show on the road, performing at libraries, arts festivals and theaters across the state.
I talk to myself in a bunch of different voices and characters for like 30 minutes.
Kathy said that what they’d really like to do is find some way to engage the parents who linger a little too long — and a little too longingly — while dropping their kids off at puppet camp.
“We think that grownups need more puppets in their lives,” Kathy said.
They’ve just finished prepping their summer show, a STEM-themed extravaganza that takes place in a repair shop.
Props from the production are scattered throughout the garage, including a computer suffering from a busted “common sense filter” and a pair of purple and green puppets that are new additions to the cast.
And speaking of green, I couldn’t help but notice a photo of Yoda, circa “The Empire Strikes Back,” hanging on the far wall.
It prompts a question to Swartz that I already know the answer to, something about the tactile “Star Wars” of old versus the there but for the grace of digital pixels approach that dominated the installments that greeted the new millennium.
Basically puppet Yoda or CGI Yoda?
“There’s something subtle you can get across with a live object that you’re animating,” Swartz said.
Swartz can and did go into much longer explanation involving something called the “uncanny valley” — but he’s right.
Sometimes simpler is better.